Adding more than 10,000 seats is paying off for the LaPorte County Fair now with deeper pockets to attract major country music entertainers and other spectacular acts.
Enough seating for more 9,000 fans will be shaped for the first this year like a horse shoe to surround the stage for Little Big Town in the grandstands.
Fair manager Gene Shurte said it cost more than $100,000 to bring in the group, which shows the growing commitment and ability financially to drawing big name entertainment to the fair.
"We just hope the people in LaPorte and the surrounding areas support us so we can keep bringing in big acts," Shurte said.
Fair officials are also in talks to bring a second major country music act and a rock band from the '70s and '80s to this year's fair, which runs July 6 to 12.
So far, the response has been promising.
More than 4,000 tickets for the Little Big Town show, for example, were purchased in just a few days after tickets started going on sale March 1.
Shurte said the rate of tickets selling for Little Big Town possibly set a record for the fair even topping last year's early pace for country music legend Willie Nelson, who performed to a packed house.
Ted Nugent and Josh Turner are other big name music acts that played to a packed house at the fair the past few years.
The extra seating has also allowed for other major events to be held at the fairgrounds throughout the summer like the 2009 RPM Fest, a tractor pull and monster truck show that drew 50,000 or more people over a three-day period and the week long Pyrotechnics Guild International in 2012 featuring professional fireworks makers putting on powerful shows for tens of thousands of paying spectators.
The cost of bringing in major entertainment is being funded with proceeds from much greater tickets sales made possible by adding bleachers in 2008 that increased seating capacity to more than 15,000.
In comparison, seating previously was limited to about 4,000 in the grandstands.
"You got to sell tickets. As long as we sell tickets we're fine," said Shurte.
LaPorte County Commissioner Dave Decker said the fairgrounds is now the largest entertainment venue locally with no other facility in the county having as many seats.
Many more paying customers also translates into extra money to reinvest into the fairgrounds for upgrading water and sewer along with building maintenance and other repairs not to mention additional money spent on local businesses by tourists coming here for major events, said Decker.
So far, Shurte said over half of the tickets for Little Big Town have been purchased by people living in LaPorte County.
However, 15 percent of the tickets were bought by people from eastern Porter County with other tickets purchased from areas further to the west like Lake County and Chicago and north into southwest Michigan.
He said the upgrades combined with existing attractions like Pioneerland, established in the mid-90s,make the fair "one of the best in the state. Bar none."
"We still concentrate on the kids and having a fair that's animal friendly. Now, we're just expanding that with the entertainment part of it," said Decker.
Decker also revealed the traditional three nights of demolition derby and a major tractor pull show at this year's fair will occur just west of the grandstands.
Those events normally in the grandstands are being relocated to an area that will have enough seating for 5,000 or more people.
Decker said a new area for those events allows the grandstands to be dedicated strictly for major musical acts to preserve the grounds torn up significantly by the demolition derby last year and restored just barely in time for last year's Willie Nelson concert the day after the last derby.
Some people at the beginning questioned the gamble on investing money on quadrupling the number of seats at the fairgrounds, wondering if such a bold move would pay dividends.
"The fair board just decided we need to go out and see if this is the way the people want to have it. If it is, we will be bringing in more acts like that in," said Decker.